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(Bloomberg) — Donald Trump has alienated large swathes of minority communities during his presidency, but he thinks he has an argument to win some of them over in the 2020 election: the economy.
Trump announced the formation of a new group — “Black Voices for Trump” — on Friday in Atlanta to recruit and engage African-American voters after launching a Hispanic outreach campaign earlier this year. Both efforts will rely heavily on the president’s economic record — primarily the decline in unemployment among minorities during his tenure.
“We’re going to campaign for every last African American vote in 2020,” Trump said. “We’re going to make 2020 a year of change in black communities all across the country.”
But it’s not clear whether job gains will be enough to overcome damage from his own divisive rhetoric on race, such as saying there were “very fine people” on both sides of a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that erupted in violence and left one person dead, and recently calling himself the victim of a “lynching” in the House impeachment inquiry.
Republicans have long trailed Democrats among minority groups, but Trump has taken that disparity to new levels. A September poll by the Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago showed that 92% of African Americans disapprove of Trump’s handling of race relations.
The survey results reflect multiple controversies that left critics accusing him of enabling a resurgence of white supremacists and nationalists.
Polling data suggest that many African-American voters view Trump’s comments on race as showing “hostility” that’s “so deep and profound that perhaps it is preventing him from finding points of commonality that he might be able to find if his racial rhetoric was different,” said Keisha Lindsay, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
The issue surfaced again at his own rally in Louisiana on Tuesday.
Eddie Rispone, Louisiana’s GOP gubernatorial nominee stood alongside Trump and said: “We have a president here that has had the lowest unemployment for minorities in the history of the United States and they’ll call him a racist?”
The unemployment rate for blacks dipped to a record low 5.4% in October from nearly triple that level a decade ago. Among whites, the rate is lower at 3.2%. The gap between the two has remained, though has tightened this year as more black workers are brought in from the sidelines.
Still, Rispone’s comments illustrate how steep a climb Trump faces in winning over minority voters. On top of actively courting those votes, he must first combat perceptions and claims from critics that he is racist.
The new push with minorities comes as Trump tries to face down the House impeachment inquiry, which has delivered a series of damaging blows to his popularity and crushed the prospect of pushing any major new initiatives through Congress before the election.
But for Trump, it’s less about winning than narrowing his wide margin of loss among black and Hispanic voters, who accounted for 21% of the electorate in 2016. He would also benefit by simply quelling enthusiasm in those groups to get to the polls and vote for Democrats.
His re-election path runs through swing states and potentially vulnerable strongholds with large non-white populations. Georgia, Michigan, and North Carolina have significant black communities; Arizona, New Mexico and Texas have major Hispanic communities; and Trump’s new home state of Florida has both.
Trump’s primary argument thus far has been economic. He consistently points to record-low unemployment among blacks and Hispanics, and his campaign is looking to the new group to spread that message to minority communities across the country. He argues that Democrats — who have won the lion’s share of black votes since the 1964 Civil Rights Act — have failed their communities. Asking for black voters’ support in 2016, Trump said: “What the hell do you have to lose?”
But Trump’s own rhetoric has repelled the groups he’s now trying to attract.
In addition to his divisive comments about the 2017 Charlottesville violence, Trump has described places such as Haiti and African nations as “sh–hole” countries. He labeled Baltimore — a black-majority city — a “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess.”
Trump has regularly attacked the legacy of Barack Obama, who still enjoys wide support among black voters. More recently, Trump said four Democratic congresswomen who are minorities should “go back” to where they came from. This summer, he declined to recant his claim that the Central Park 5 — young black men wrongly convicted for a crime — should have faced the death penalty.
Last month, Trump said the House’s impeachment inquiry against him amounted to a “lynching,” invoking a violent period of racism in America’s history. His campaign quickly responded with past instances of Democrats, including Joe Biden, employing similar rhetoric as Bill Clinton faced impeachment.
But Trump, who rejects claims that he’s racist, has made gestures on race that have ranged from meaningful policy to what critics have considered superficial, including inviting Kanye West to the White House and sending a hostage negotiator to help rapper A$AP Rocky, who had been arrested in Sweden after getting into a street brawl.
Reducing Prison Sentences
Trump points to other actions his administration has taken, such as the First Step Act, which reduces prison sentences. He’s announced he wants to expand federal funding for faith-based historically black colleges. And his tax overhaul included an opportunity zones program targeting inner-city communities.
Ja’Ron Smith, a deputy assistant to the president and one of the administration’s highest-ranking black officials, said: “When President Trump talks about forgotten communities, he’s talking about those low-income communities that still look the same since almost the riots of the late ‘60s and have been decimated by trade policies that have chased middle class opportunities away from those communities.”
He said Trump’s approach is that every community should get “a chance at the American dream.”
But Corey Fields, a sociology professor at Georgetown University and author of “Black Elephants in the Room: The Unexpected Politics of African-American Republicans,” said the Trump campaign “is not talking to black people in ways that are resonating.”
“The likelihood that it’s going to move black voters at all is not very likely,” Fields said.
There are mixed signs that 2020 will be closer. A New York Times poll published this week showed that each of the three democratic front-runners — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — have smaller leads over Trump among blacks and Hispanics than Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.
In a statement, the Republican party said it continues to engage black voters. “Our permanent, data-driven ground game allows us to expand upon our presence in black communities from previous election cycles and connect with voters in their communities about issues they care about,” they said.
Georgetown’s Fields said the messaging could also be aimed at white voters who are uncomfortable with Trump’s suggestion that criticisms of his race relations are invalid because he’s praised by Diamond and Silk, the African American Trump supporters and social media stars. Last month, after Trump’s “lynching” comments, the duo backed the president.
“They want us to follow the law, but they want to do everything they can to railroad a sitting president and I’m sorry, it’s the truth, it’s a political lynching. Our president is being lynched and we are not going to stand for it,” Lynnette “Diamond” Hardaway said.
(Updates with Trump comment in third paragraph)